Is it what it is?

On Tuesday in “Fluid Readers, Fluid Texts,” we discussed some of the ways in which the practice of criticism – the activities of reading and writing critically – can naturally give rise to theoretical reflection on that very practice. This theoretical reflection generates both a vocabulary for engaging in those activities and questions about that vocabulary. Text is an important word in that vocabulary, but there’s no simple, straightforward, universally accepted answer to the question, What is a text?

Too often, we’re led to believe that practicing criticism is simply a matter of understanding some basic critical terms – irony, for example, or comedy – and applying them. If it were only that simple.

The fact is, there’s no way to practice criticism intelligently without also thinking constantly at the next level of abstraction up from practice, where we find ourselves in conversation with other practitioners about what irony or comedy is and how one or the other of them actually works.

Two other theoretical concepts, we said, are representation and symbol. We’ll have lots of opportunities to think about how these concepts can be defined and how they work. For now, it’s worth nothing that both concepts can help us navigate the disorienting fact that in literature, and the arts generally, we’re continually dealing with things that are what they are at the same time that they’re something else, and so not what they are: a skull that’s a skull but also a reminder of death; words that are words but also the stuff from which a character emerges; daubs of paint on canvas that are also strands of hair. An elephant in the room.

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